Monday, March 17, 2014

Do you feel lucky? My Shepherd's Pie will help!

All the Irish in me comes all from my Nana, Lorraine. She was half Irish, and proud of it. I'm inspired by her life story. Her mom died when she was young, and her alcoholic father couldn’t take care of her and her siblings, so they were separated from each other and had a tough time growing up. My Nana was even homeless as a teenager, but still got herself to high school every day, and graduated. She married my Grampy; they had my dad, my aunt, and my uncle; and she went on to Nursing school to become exactly the kind of nurse you’d want at your bedside: smart, compassionate, and hilarious. She was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. I smile whenever I think of her.

1983: My mom's mom, Susan, on the left. My dad's mom, Lorraine, on the right.
As a kid, I often spent weekends staying at her house, and evenings hanging out with her during her night shifts at Long Island Hospital. She made me feel like I was a good companion and a helpful assistant, never a burden, even though she was actually babysitting me and working at the same time. She took care of everyone around her, at work and at home. She could cook for an army, and regularly did. She even drove meals and gave rides to friends and family who needed them. To be around her was to be nourished, in both body and in spirit.

My Nana died of a brain aneurysm after a few years of what seemed like just plain bad luck, including a couple car accidents that injured her neck. She was only 57 years old, and I knew she left the physical world way too soon, but now that I’m older and my mom is nearly her age, I have an even clearer picture of just how premature it was than I did when I was 15. I got the news that she had fallen down in her garden during a school day. I had been in high school choral class, singing Danny Boy. I remember being given the message from the school receptionist and leaving the room to use a payphone in the hall. I don't remember that phone call, but I do remember walking back to the chorus and trying to rejoin the song, while tears streamed down my face. 

My Nana was, without a doubt, my favorite person. I've never seen more appreciative friends, or flowers, at anyone's funeral. Her life touched hundreds, and I'm inspired by that. Saint Patrick’s Day reminds me of my Nana, and her boiled dinners and soda bread. I also remember the cards she used to send me on “little holidays” like this; they’d say “Love Ya! XOXO, Nana” and contain $5. On this day, my heart sings Danny Boy, musing over its lyrical references to the lush beauty of Ireland, from glen to glen and down the mountainside. It’s a sad song, with a sad memory attached to it for me, but I still love it. Not everything worthy of cherishing is happy; there is beauty in the difficult things, too.

I know my Nana’s spirit was too strong to just evaporate. I believe the soul transcends the physical body after death, and I still sense her presence 15 years later. Mortality, and Buddhism, reminds us to cherish what we have, because everyone we know and everything we have will most certainly, someday, be gone. Life is richer when you’re mindful of that: know that loss is inevitable, cherish the gifts life brings. That is Heaven on Earth: the experience of thinking from the Higher Mind. It bathes the blessings of your life in light, and keeps your spirit out of darkness.

Be it a friend, the love in your heart, oxygen, or sunshine, if you appreciate more, your blessings will multiply. Tonight, I’m making Shepard’s Pie, pouring a Black and Tan, and focusing on what I have, not what I’ve lost. I know my Nana would approve.

Bison Shepard's Pie
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 lb ground bison
1 bag Steamfresh peas
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
2 large sweet potatoes, roughly peeled and chopped
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup beef broth
1 tsp Worcestershire
1 cup milk
3 tbsp butter
1-2 cups goat cheese crumbles 
Salt, pepper, thyme, ground cinnamon, and canola oil

Make it happen:
  1. Boil large pot of lightly salted water; add sweet potatoes when water is boiling.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  3. Heat the oil in a large sautee pan over medium-high heat until it shimmers.
  4. Add the onion and carrots to pan, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
  5. Add bison, salt, and pepper; break up and cook through.
  6. Add bell pepper to pan.
  7. Add microwaved Steamfresh peas to pan and stir.
  8. Season with salt, pepper, and thyme.
  9. Add broth, Worcestershire, and tomato paste. 
  10. Stir and reduce heat to simmer until sauce thickens.
  11. Transfer to 11x7 baking dish.
  12. Top with layer of goat cheese crumbles.
  13. When sweet potatoes are soft, drain water and return potatoes to pan.
  14. Mash with milk and butter until smooth; add salt, pepper, and cinnamon to taste.
  15. Spread sweet potato mash onto top of baking dish, creating peaks and valleys with a fork.
  16. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes or until mashed potato peaks begin to lightly brown.
  17. Let cool for 15 minutes and serve.
It's a non-traditional version of this dish that sneaks in extra veggies and uses buffalo instead of lamb. Bison, or buffalo as it's also called, has less fat, more high-quality protein, fewer calories, less cholesterol, more iron, and more B12 than most meats. In short, it's really good for you. Check out this chart:

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